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January 9, 2017

A fond farewell to a forest friend

The iconic Pioneer Cabin Tree toppled in this weekend’s storm

By Drew Johnson, Curator of Photography and Visual Culture

With contributions from Claudia Leung, Digital Communications Specialist

In Calaveras County this weekend, we lost a literal giant. The Sequoiadendron giganteum, or giant sequoia known as the Pioneer Cabin Tree, iconic for the tunnel carved into its base wide enough for a car to pass through, fell after being hit with heavy rains and wind.

Most Californians aren't aware that the grove of giant sequoias in Calaveras county, now Big Trees State Park, is the oldest tourist attraction in the state. Visitors have been sightseeing there since 1852, well before Yosemite became a destination. With the Gold Rush winding down, artists and photographers also flocked there to make pictures that conveyed, if only imperfectly, the immense scale of the redwoods there. One such image is pictured here from OMCA's collection, Sequoia Wellingtonia. The Two Guardsmen, by W.H. McFarlane, created circa 1860. 

Another way of emphasizing the enormity of the trees was by tunneling through them to allow carriages, and later cars, to pass through. The "Pioneer Cabin" was one of several such redwoods in the state. A postcard from Yosemite Valley, circa 1908, shows a horse-drawn buggy about to pass through one. 

John Muir, in his book The Yosemite, wrote about the big trees, “no other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked down on so many centuries as the sequoia or opens so many impressive and suggestive views into history.” We mourn the passing of the Pioneer Cabin tree, even as we regret the outdated impulse that caused its mutilation more than a century ago.

A park volunteer named Jim Allday photographed the fallen tree and said it “shattered.” His wife, Joan Allday, also a park volunteer, said that the tree had become “very brittle” over the years. Many of the giant sequoias in the state park are more than 1,000 years old. A post with Allday’s photos on the Calaveras Big Trees Association Facebook page got thousands of comments including notes of farewell and photos from past visits to the tree.

With every loss, however, there’s the possibility of new life. As Muir also wrote, “for every old storm-beaten giant there are many in their prime and for each of these a crowd of hopeful young trees and saplings, growing vigorously on moraines, rocky edges, along water courses and meadows.”


What are your memories of the Pioneer Cabin Tree? Let us know in the comments.

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